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Debbie Dujanovic reporting
Produced by Kelly JustThere are a number of places in the United States where gambling is perfectly legal. None of them is in Utah. But an Eyewitness News investigation found plenty of Utahns placing bets every day at businesses in plain view. So, is it legal?
We found them in strip malls. The signs out front say internet cafe. Customers supposedly buy time to surf the web or make phone calls. While they're doing it, they can play a game called "Sweepstakes."
We had no idea what to expect the night we walked into this Internet cafe. We went through the door, and it was like we stepped into a casino in Wendover or Vegas. But no, we were in Taylorsville.
The cashier says all these customers paid 10 cents a minute for Internet access. We didn't see anyone surfing the Web on the four computer terminals, though. Instead, they were all playing games on the 30 machines that look just like video slots.
Sweepstakes is what they call the games. Lucky winners can walk away with fistfuls of cash. One man told us he spent just $20 to win $529. We caught the payout on tape. Then our big winner told us this isn't the only game in town.
So we headed to Internet cafés in South Salt Lake and Millcreek. The mood in those places was more subdued, but the rules were the same. Become a member and pay for Internet or phone time. But we only saw people playing to win!
We went back to the businesses with a not-so-hidden camera for answers. They let us stay just long enough to hear a quick explanation.
A man who claimed to own a South Salt Lake Internet café said, "We sell Internet time and Internet time only."
At the Millcreek cafe, an employees said what's going on there is perfectly legal. "...'cause they get phone time. We give ‘em phone time. They actually get a phone card. That's what they're paying for, and then they can play our sweepstakes."
There's no owner at the Taylorsville location. An employee tried to tell us how things work, that no one is paying to play the games.
Reporter: "What's the sweepstakes about?"
Employee: "I can have them call you and explain it."
Reporter: "So there's not gambling going on here?"
Reporter: "People aren't winning money?"
Employee: "Yes, they are."
Reporter: "They are winning money?"
We took it to prosecutors, city attorneys and elected officials to see how that flies
Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall said, "I think it's gambling." South Salt Lake city attorney Dave Carlson said, "Looks like gambling to me."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller isn't buying the Internet cafe thing. She said, "It's pretty clear-cut; that's gambling. It never ceases to amaze me the different ways people think that they're going to get around the gambling laws."
After seeing our video, Miller is launching her own investigation. Same results from South Salt Lake City Attorney Dave Carlson.
He said, "Gambling is not legal, and if that's their business, it needs to be shut down."
We found the city of Taylorsville is already on the case. "We've had complaints from people who have lost considerable sums of money there," Mayor Wall said.
In fact, a letter went out last month putting the owner on notice: His business license is being revoked and the investigation is open.
Utah law is complicated. In general, if you pay money to win more money in a game of chance, it's gambling, no matter what you call it. You might be thinking this is just harmless fun, but we found people who've lost thousands, even entire Social Security checks.
We'll keep you posted on the investigations into the three places we went into. We've already received calls on two others.